The Spirituality of the Tibetan Ethnic Minority

Colourful prayer flags fluttering atop piles of mani stones[1]; monks chanting mantras in a low and haunting voice; the thick scent of incense wafting on the breeze; these are the sights, sounds, and smells we’ve come to associate with Tibet. As a deeply spiritual ethnic group, Tibetans practice their religion with a piety and fervour that has captured the attention of people throughout the globe. Their complete and utter dedication to their faith is arguably their defining feature. While nowadays the majority of Tibetans adhere to Tibetan Buddhism, their spiritual love affair began with an indigenous religion known as Bön. Bön is a shamanistic[2] and animistic[3] faith that is thought to have been the first religion in Tibet. It revolves around a belief in numerous deities, demons, and ancestral spirits that can be contacted by special priests, known as shamans.

Buddhism did not truly take root in the country until the 7th century, during the reign of the Tibetan king Songtsän Gampo. His two wives, Princess Bhrikuti of the Nepalese Licchavi Kingdom (c. 400–750 AD) and Princess Wencheng of the Han Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907), were staunch believers in Buddhism and eventually persuaded him to share their faith. When the Indian Buddhist master Padmasambhāva visited Tibet during the 8th century at the behest of King Trisong Detsän, the religion’s popularity was firmly cemented. As time went on, Bön began to incorporate features of Buddhism, and so too did Buddhism in Tibet start to adopt concepts from Bön. 

The arrival of the Buddhist master Atīśa in 1042 triggered a reform movement in Tibet and, within a century, many major sects of Tibetan Buddhism had been established. By the 17th century, the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect had risen to become the dominant spiritual and political entity in Tibet; a situation that would remain unchanged until 1959. Elaborate complexes such as the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, and the Ganden Monastery all stand as grand monoliths to the religion’s historical importance. While a minority of adherents continue to practice Bön, the sheer plethora of monasteries and temples dedicated to Tibetan Buddhism act as a testament to its enduring supremacy.

Tibetan Buddhism was initially based on the Vajrayana or Tantric sect of Buddhism, but has since also adopted features from the Madhyamaka and Yogachara schools of philosophy. It is the religion’s unique features, however, that have helped it to stand out on the international stage. In particular, it is renowned for its system of tulku or “reincarnated Buddhist masters”, the most well-known of which are the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama[4]. Each time an old tulku dies, a panel of senior monks is charged with locating the young person who harbours their re-incarnated soul. The process for finding these reincarnations has gradually changed over the years, but is nevertheless a fascinating and mysterious ritual that sets Tibetan Buddhism apart from its peers. 

Nowadays, the most common Buddhist practice seen throughout Tibet is the spinning of prayer wheels containing Buddhist scriptures. They come in a variety of types and sizes, with small, handheld ones being the most popular. Prayer wheels are spun in lieu of orally chanting mantras and are particularly helpful for the illiterate, who might otherwise be unable to accurately recite Buddhist scripture. The wheels are traditionally turned clockwise, although practitioners of Bön spin them counter-clockwise.

Another act of religious importance is the practice of pilgrimage and prostration. On the roads leading to Lhasa, you may catch a glimpse of Buddhists prostrating on their way to the capital. Depending on where they’ve come from, these pilgrimages can take weeks, months, or even years! Every three steps, the pilgrim is expected to prostrate themselves as part of an intricate ritual. Firstly, they must stand upright and chant what is known as the “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantra. They then put their palms together, raise their hands over their head, and take a step forward.

Lowering the hands in front of their face, they take another step forward and prepare to prostrate. To do this, they must lower their hands down to their chest, separate them, reach out with their palms facing downwards, and kneel onto the ground. The final step is to prostrate with the forehead slightly touching the ground. The time-consuming nature of this ritual means that many people simply choose to do it while circumambulating a Buddhist monastery in a clockwise direction, rather than making the pilgrimage all the way to Lhasa. In much the same way, Tibetan people will walk in a clockwise direction around pagodas, stupas[5], or piles of mani stones while chanting mantras as a mark of respect. As we head into an era of increasing modernisation, we can only hope that these rich spiritual traditions and soothing rituals will not be lost.  

Notes:

[1] A mani stone is a stone plate, rock, or pebble that has been inscribed with the six-syllabled Buddhist “Om Mani Padme Hum” mantra. They are usually placed by roadsides or rivers either alone, as part of a large mound, or arranged into a wall. According to Tibetan Buddhism, they serve as a form of prayer or religious offering.

[2] Shamanism: The practice of attempting to reach altered states of consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world and channel energy from it into the real world. This can only be done by specialist practitioners known as shaman.

[3] Animism: The belief that all non-human entities, including animals, plants, and even inanimate objects, possess a spiritual essence or soul.

[4] The Panchen Lama: The highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhism.

[5] Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

Tibetan Architecture

Due to their remote location on the Tibetan plateau and the harsh weather conditions they regularly face, the architecture of the Tibetan people has largely evolved to suit the landscape in which they live. These two-storey stone houses tend to be built on elevated sites facing the south and have multiple wide windows to capture the greatest amount of sunlight, since fuel for heating or lighting is in short supply among the barren mountain slopes. Flat roofs help to conserve heat, while inward sloping walls protect against earthquakes. From the outside, their square and white-washed exteriors look rather basic, but their interiors are often lavishly decorated in a constellation of colours, from bright yellows and soothing oranges to burnished reds and sultry blues. This style of architecture is the most typical, but it’s important to note that Tibetan people live in vastly different homes depending on region, with some living in yurts, some opting in fixed abodes, and some oscillating between the two. 

With its square buildings, darkened corridors, thirteen storeys, and over one thousand rooms, the Potala Palace is regarded as emblematic of the simplistic beauty associated with Tibetan architecture. It is divided between the outer White Palace, which serves as the administrative centre, and the inner Red Palace, where can be found the main religious halls, shrines, and the expansive sutra library. While monks reside within these grand monasteries and farmers tend to live in fixed stone houses, the nomadic pastoralists on the grasslands continue to utilise mobile yurts made of yak-hair cloth, which are distinctly rectangular in shape and can range from 4 to 15 metres (13 ft. to 50 ft.) in length. These yurts can be easily dismantled and transported, but the durability of the yak-hair cloth means they can withstand inclement weather and retain heat. After all, we can’t think of many more animals that are hardier than the yak!

The Tibetan Customs

Much like the environment in which they live, the customs of the Tibetan ethnic minority are marked by their elegance, solemnity, and deep spirituality. This is most often seen in the traditions surrounding a ceremonial white scarf, known as a hada[1]. The hada features in both traditional Tibetan and Mongolian culture, but plays a vastly different role in each. In Tibet, it evolved out of the ancient custom of adorning statues of deities with clothes. The white hada symbolises purity, faithfulness, and respect to the receiver. It is a common courtesy afforded to everyone, no matter their rank or background.

The hada itself is made of loosely woven silk and features a range of patterns, which have auspicious or symbolic meanings. They can be as short as 50 centimetres (20 in) and as long as 4 metres (13 ft.). While most hada are white, there is a special version that is made up of five different colours: blue to represent the air; white to symbolise water; yellow to signify the earth; green to denote nature; and red to indicate fire. This five-coloured hada is considered to be the cloth of the Buddha and, as such, it must only be given on exceedingly important occasions. It is a highly valued gift that is exclusively offered to statues of the Buddha, eminent monks, or intimate relatives.

The white hada is customarily offered during a variety of occasions, from regular greetings and temple visits to marriage ceremonies and funerals. In some cases, Tibetans will even leave behind a hada near their seat in a temple to signify that, although they have physically left, their heart remains. When presenting a hada, the giver typically takes the scarf in both hands, lifts it to the shoulder height of the recipient, extends their arms, bends over, and passes it to the recipient, taking care to ensure that their head is level with the hada. To show respect, the recipient should accept the hada with both hands. It is also considered acceptable to place the hada around someone’s neck if they are your social peers or juniors, but seniors or elders should have the hada placed in front of their seats or at their feet as a mark of deference.

The practice of giving hada is so centric to Tibetan culture that, whenever a person leaves the house, they will carry several hada with them in case an opportunity arises where they might be expected to offer one. When writing letters, they will even enclose a miniature hada in the envelope! In most contexts, the hada is designed to extend good wishes and respect, but its significance may change slightly depending on the context. During festivals, a hada is exchanged to wish the recipient a happy holiday. At weddings, the bride and groom are presented with hada in the hopes that they will have everlasting harmony and a bright future together. At funerals, the family present hada to the guests so that the Buddha may bless them and the guests offer hada to the grieving relatives in order to express their condolences.

Aside from the hada, there is a strict etiquette in Tibetan culture surrounding the act of greeting. When visiting relatives, it is customary for the visitor to carry a basket filled with gifts, a thermos flask of buttered tea, and a bucket full of chang[2]. The basket should be covered with a cloth to ensure that no one can see inside. When the guest arrives, the host and hostess will welcome them warmly before enjoying a drink of the butter tea and the chang they have brought.

After a long time spent chatting and catching up, the guest will finally present the host with their gift-basket. It is considered polite for the host to leave some of the gifts, such as food, within the basket for the guest to take back home, as this shows modesty and restraint. Not only that, but the host will be expected to add some inexpensive items to the basket, such as fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, or new clothes for the guest’s children. Most importantly of all, the host will take note of what the guest has brought so that, when they pay a visit, they can bring a gift-basket of similar value. Unlike most people, who give so that they can later receive, the Tibetans receive so that they can give!

Superstition is also a prominent feature of Tibetan culture, with numerous taboos and omens being observed. A traveller who passes by a funeral procession, a source of running water, or a person carrying a pitcher of water is said to have good luck coming their way. A vulture or owl perched on a rooftop is a sign that death or misfortune will soon befall the inhabitants. Snowfall during a wedding is believed to be a sign that the newlyweds will face many difficulties in their marriage. By contrast, snowfall during a funeral means that the family will not suffer another death for a long time. In short, don’t dream of a white wedding, wish for a white funeral!

[1] Hada: A hada is a narrow strip of silk or cotton that is used by Mongolian and Tibetan people as a greeting gift. Although it has little monetary value, in a nomadic culture it carries deep symbolic value, as everything must be carried on one’s person and therefore must be deemed worthy to take up precious limited space.

[2] Chang: Chang is an alcoholic beverage brewed from highland barley, millet, or rice grains. It is popular among the Tibetan and Nepalese people. Although its alcohol content is low, it produces a warming sensation that is ideal in the frozen climes of Tibet and Nepal.

The Tibetan Ethnic Minority

Long ago, when the earth was in its infancy, there roamed a mythical monkey known as Pha Trelgen Changchup Sempa. Even his name was imbued with deep significance, with “pha” meaning “father”, “trelgen” meaning “old monkey”, “changchup” translating to “enlightenment”, and “sempa” meaning “intention”. He settled on Mount Gongori in Tibet, where he vowed to immerse himself in meditation and pursue a life of asceticism. One day, while he sat deep in thought, he was approached by a rock ogress named Ma Drag Sinmo. She begged the monkey to marry her and made every attempt to seduce him, but he refused, as his religious discipline meant he could not yield to temptation.

In her desperation, the ogress then resorted to threats. She told the monkey that, if he would not marry her, then she would marry a demon and produce a multitude of smaller monsters, which would overrun the earth and destroy all other living creatures. Evidently she didn’t take rejection very well! The monkey despaired and, not knowing what to do, he consulted the bodhisattva[1] Avalokiteśvara. Avalokiteśvara told the monkey that this was an auspicious sign and that he was destined to marry the ogress, so he gave the couple his blessing and the two were married.

Within a few months, the ogress gave birth to six small monkeys and the elder monkey left his six children to grow up in the forest. After three years, he returned and, to his dismay, he found that they had multiplied to five hundred monkeys. The fruits of the forest were no longer enough to sustain them, and they beseeched their father to help them find food. At a loss once again, the elder monkey went back to Avalokiteśvara. The bodhisattva travelled to the sacred Mount Meru, but from here the story diverges. Some say he collected a handful of barley on the mountain, while others believe he plucked the five cereals from his own body and offered them to the elder monkey.

Regardless of how it transpired, the elder monkey planted the cereals and, after a bumper harvest, he was able to feed all of his children. As they continued to engage in agriculture and move away from the forest, the monkeys gradually lost their tails and most of their hair. They began to use tools made from bone and stone, then wove their own clothes and built their own houses. Eventually they formed a venerable civilisation, from which the Tibetan people supposedly descended. So the next time you question your own family tree, imagine how strange it would be to have a monkey and an ogress as your ancestors!

Living primarily in isolated locations throughout India, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, the Tibetan people have maintained an air of mystery that has captured the curiosity of people throughout the world. They embody a culture defined by spirituality, communion with nature, and rigid discipline. Even their language is highly stylised, with honorific and ordinary versions for most words, which are used to address superiors or inferiors respectively. The indisputable importance that religion holds for Tibetans is reflected in this language, as there is a set of higher honorific terms that are only to be used when addressing the highest sect of Buddhist lamas.

According to historical records, it is estimated that the ancestors of the Tibetan people began settling along the Yarlung Tsangpo River sometime before the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC). The expansive grasslands and lush pastures allowed them to easily raise and support herds of sheep, goat, and yak, which became their primary source of income. However, the harsh climate meant they could only grow certain hardier varieties of grain, such as highland barley. Thus they evolved into an ethnic group primarily composed of farmers and pastoral nomads, with a clear distinction between peasantry and the elite landowning class.

Their belief in and devotion to a higher power first manifested in the indigenous religion of Bön, which was gradually superseded by Buddhism during the 7th century. Eventually these two venerable faiths intermingled to form Tibetan Buddhism, the religion observed by the majority of Tibetans to this day. From the darkened corridors and elaborately decorated halls of the Potala Palace to the humble yurts on the craggy Tibetan Plateau, people from all walks of life carry prayer wheels, chant sutras[2], and prostrate themselves as a demonstration of their piety.

This extreme devoutness has given birth to countless stunning works of art, including intricate thangka paintings, elegant statuary, and the semi-spiritual Epic of King Gesar, which is considered to be the longest hero epic in the world. While this level of piousness might lead you to think that the Tibetan people are solemn, that’s far from the truth! Religious festivals, such as the Losar Festival and the Shoton Festival, are celebrated with lively performances of Tibetan Opera, singing, dancing, and bountiful feasts. With such a rich and vibrant culture, it’s easy to see how the lifestyle of this enigmatic ethnic group has captured the imaginations of people from across the globe.

 

 

[1] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

 

Read more about Tibetan Ethnic Minority:

Traditional Dress       Other Customs

 

Tibetan Traditional Dress

In spite of the hostile environment in which they live, the traditional garments of the Tibetan people are defined by their bright colours and elaborate ornamentation. Like precious stones and glimmering jewels, they stand out on the barren plains of the Tibetan plateau. Tibetans typically don long-sleeved jackets made of silk or cloth, covered by a loose robe tied at the right by a band. Nomadic herdsmen and women working in colder climates eschew the jacket in favour of sheepskin robes fringed with fur. While women tend to wear skirts with a multi-coloured apron over top and men wear trousers, they both opt for leather long-boots to combat the rocky terrain and felt or fur hats to keep themselves warm. For the sake of mobility, many Tibetans leave one or both shoulders uncovered and tie the sleeves around their waist when they are working.

Both genders usually keep their hair long, with men coiling it into a single braid on the top of their head. Girls wear their hair in one braid until they turn seventeen, at which point they plait it into two braids or multiple smaller braids as part of a coming-of-age ceremony. Ornaments play an important role in Tibetan culture, so these braids will be dripping with finery. Historically and culturally speaking, jewellery was the tool used by Tibetans to distinguish the rich from the poor. Poorer nomads would only be able to afford simple jewellery, such as coral pieces, or none at all, while richer nomads would sport silver chains, gold teeth, and large coral earrings.

In contrast to this lavish decoration, the clothes of the Tibetan monks are modest and solemn in nature. They traditionally wear a sleeveless garment known as a kasaya, which translates to mean “colour that is not pure” in Sanskrit. This is thought to derive from the fact that the kasaya is purplish red in colour, rather than being a pure primary colour. It is approximately 2.5 times the length of the human body and is wrapped around the upper body with the right shoulder exposed.

The quality and colour of the cloth used to make the kasaya varies depending on the rank and importance of the wearer. The most eminent monks will have their garments fringed with yellow silk brocade or will wear clothes made from the finest yellow silks and satins. While the style of the kasaya worn by different Tibetan Buddhist sects rarely varies, they each wear different types of hats to distinguish themselves. In short, you should be able to tell them apart at the drop of a hat!